Where is the centre of a country house? For some it may be a favoured study or library, or a sunlit parlour facing the gardens. Yet, from the time of the earliest large residential buildings, the great hall has often enjoyed that rare status of being at the core of daily life. However, as times changed, so too did the function, becoming less a space for the whole household to meet and eat, more a statement about the wealth and status of the owner. The Victorians were keen revivalists for the patterns and forms of ancient aristocratic life and although few used their halls for dining, their role as an impressive reception area, both for receiving guests and entertaining, meant that some embraced the opportunity for grandeur, as can be seen in the recently launched for sale, Dundarave, Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland.
A medieval country house still reflected the social arrangements of a castle with the lord and his family congregating in the central hall as this was safest and also warmest. As the designs of homes changed from fortifications to the form we recognise today, the family would still wish to be seen and to entertain in the grandest space in the house. It was also still probably the warmest. The huge processions of the Tudor monarchs required a large enough area to accommodate the existing household plus the royal retinue and to have such a capacity was a sign of prestige. The great hall was therefore as much a practical space as it was a statement of the wealth and power of the owner, as shown by the lavish construction, including spectacular hammer-beam roofs, such as at Eltham Palace (built in 1470s) and Burghley (built much later in 1578 – and the last to have an open timberwork roof), and windows with glass.
For the Elizabethans, the great hall was becoming increasingly symbolic, with Burghley the last extravagant flourish of that earlier age. For houses closely associated with the monarchy or the favoured courtiers, the decorative opportunities that a space such as a great hall offered were irresistible. At Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88 by the brilliant Robert Smythson, a soaring central tower was designed to not only be topped by a prospect room from which to watch the hunting but also to contain a lofty interior, rising 50ft to a hammer-beam roof (though this one is decorative rather than structural). Already the role of the great hall as a daily practical space was diminishing in favour of a more exhibitionist one.
Just over ten years later, in c.1601, the completion of the great hall at Montacute, Somerset, marked the first clear departure in design. Although at the ground level it still had the same traditional features – porch, screen, bay window, steps at the high end – this hall was only a single story, rejecting the customary double-height space. The hall was still an important part of the house with the other rooms designed to lead from it, but decisively its role as the daily venue for the entire household to meet and eat together had passed. Instead the hall became less a space for living and more a space for occasional entertaining; for banquets, balls, and concerts.
The hall was often the centrepiece of the ‘polite’ rooms for guests which formed the main front to a house. This meant that the main entrance would usually lead to a screens passage separating it from one end, with the hall orientated east-west (especially in H-plan houses). As the overall plan of country houses started adopting the double-pile, this arrangement was increasingly awkward and so the hall was re-orientated to north-south, often running through the centre of the house, as can be seen in one of the earliest examples of a transverse hall at Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire, also designed by Robert Smythson, in c.1595 (which has been shockingly treated over the last 20 years, including a suspicious fire in 2007). Although exterior fashions were changing to a more austere form, houses such as Forty Hall, Enfield, built in 1629, were still organised internally around a recognisable great hall.
The next major change was the elevation of the bedroom into a formal receiving room, a French practice adopted by Charles II after his return at the Restoration in 1660. This is reflected in the layout of Hampton Court Palace, as redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren between 1689–1700, where the state apartments form the centre of the procession towards the presence of the king (though the existing great hall, added in 1532-35, was the last to be built for a monarch). This fashion had already been adopted by other members of the court, with Charles II’s friend and minister, the Duke of Lauderdale, having created a state apartment in 1672 at Ham House, Surrey (though, as a rebuilding of an earlier house, it still retained a great hall).
With the decline in the importance of the hall, it seemed almost inevitable that it would be used as a convenient setting for the ever grander staircases so beloved by the Georgians or even just as a convenient circulation space to pass through between the fine rooms. The broadening of wealth to those who made their money from trade and therefore preferred to live closer to the cities, led to the development of the villa. Adapted from the Italian model, most famously those of Palladio and Scamozzi, there was neither space nor the social requirement for a great hall. Chiswick House, designed in 1726, by the arch-Palladian Lord Burlington, had a central octagonal hall. In larger houses, such as New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, built 1769-76, is one of the finest examples of the Georgian interpretation of the hall, a cathedral-like space, with curved staircases leading to a columned gallery with a circumference of 144-ft. Of course, for those favouring the gothic, a great hall was still a core statement of lineal antiquity and so was still included in the plans, leading to beautiful examples such as the Gothic Hall for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Oxford, at Welbeck Abbey in 1751, or as at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire for the Duke of Bridgewater built between 1803-17, decorated with statues of kings.
It was those same intentions to either emphasise a family’s existing heritage or to give the impression that a family had a distinguished past, which led to a broader revival of the great hall in the Victorian era. By having the benefit of eight centuries of the development of the great hall, a family would be able to design for accuracy, for comfort, but almost always for show. Fuelled by romantic visions of the past by books such as Joseph Nash‘s 4-volume ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Time‘, published in 1839-49, the hall was now to be a grand display of whatever values they wish to imprint on this most useful of architectural motifs.
A late-Georgian recreation was at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, in 1830, where the Elizabethan great hall was reinstated. In 1836, two examples were started independently with accurate medieval revival great halls at Alton Towers, Staffordshire for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the other for Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt at Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire. Each of these represent the two strands to the historic revivalism; Alton Towers being a religious statement, designed by A.W.N. Pugin, and Bayons Manor, of giving substance to a family line. Pugin was one of the keenest exponents for the revival of the great hall. A gothic evangelist who promoted the style as the only true architecture for the country as it was linked to a pre-Reformation England of Roman Catholicism. The great hall was a symbol of a paternal system which Pugin related strongly to and which could be incorporated into daily life through the use of a great hall where the family could meet and the estate tenants and workers could be fed.
The great hall at Bayons Manor was equally impressive as Pugin’s but was designed by Anthony Salvin. He had probably developed an affection for them whilst working on the restoration of the one at Brancepeth Castle, Co. Durham, in 1829 at the start of his career, throughout which he would create other notable examples including at Harlaxton (1831-38), Mamhead House (1835), and Peckforton Castle (1844). Firmly in the ‘family heritage’ camp is Arundel Castle, West Sussex, where between 1893-98 a vast Baron’s Hall was built, perhaps one of the closest recreations in form and spirit of the medieval great hall. Although designed by renowned gothic scholar and architect Charles A. Buckler, he worked in exceptionally close co-operation with the 15th Duke, to whom a near constant stream of designs and decisions were passed for his comment and approval. This work was designed to emphasise the great age of the Norfolk family, a re-assertion of their status as one of the premier ducal families.
However, as the nature of the ownership moved increasingly towards those owners whose wealth came from industry and finance rather than landowning, so the need to entertain in large numbers such as the estate workers was less common. Houses were often for weekend entertaining; smaller groups of business and political associates who would wish to dine in convivial intimacy conducive to discussion. The role of the great hall moved back towards being a circulation space at the centre of the house, a place where pre-dinner drinks may be served but little more – though, equally, it still had to amaze.
The hall was often the first room your guests stepped into and so it had to create that all important first impression of your wealth and status. Lofty, substantial rooms were created with muscular columns, galleries, niches for statues, and space for art. It’s in this tradition that Dundarave was built between 1846-49 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. This top-lit space evokes something of the grand Roman baths and certainly fulfils the requirement to thrill. The house is currently for sale and I imagine that potential buyers will step through the closed hallway, step out into the great hall and express similar amazement as has been the intention of all owners who have used spaces such as this for centuries; to impress.
Sales particulars: ‘Dundarave, Co. Antrim‘ [Savills] – £5m, 549-acres
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